My first surprise looking at this new re-packaging of the 2009 Collector’s Choice edition of the same material was that it is a two-disc set. I didn’t remember Gary Lewis and the Playboys releasing so many records. I did recall “This Diamond Ring,” “Count Me In,” “Everybody Loves A Clown,” and “She’s Just My Style.” Hearing them again, I immediately recognized “Green Grass” and “My Heart’s A Symphony.” But I didn’t know other Playboys Top 10 hits included “Save Your Heart for Me” and “Sure Gonna Miss Her.” Turns out, Lewis had eight gold singles in all, 17 Top 40 hits, and four gold albums all within two years.
That two-year run began in 1965 when the son of comedian Jerry Lewis was the frontman for a band first performing at Disneyland. Gary Lewis sang lead vocals and played drums. The rest of the group originally included David Walker (guitar), Allan Ramsay (bass), David Costell (guitar), an John West (electric accordion). As was normal practice at the time, producer Snuff Garrett wanted more professional musicians playing on the records, so composer Al Kooper’s “This Diamond Ring” featured some of the finest in the business, namely Tommy Allsup (guitar), Leon Russell (keyboards), and Hal Blaine (drums). Depending on what source you trust, either Carol Kaye or Joe Osborne played bass. Rather famously at the time, Garett double-tracked Lewis’ voice as it wasn’t strong enough to carry the lead without some assist. Lewis was also supported by overdubs of Ron Hicklin’s vocals. Despite this, in 1965 Lewis was Cash Box magazine’s “Male Vocalist of the Year” beating Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
By 1967, it was pretty much all over. Not only had musical tastes changed, but Lewis was inducted into the military. In 1968, Lewis returned to the Top 40 one last time with his remake of Brian Hyland’s “Sealed With A Kiss.” Then it was really all over except for the nostalgia circuit and reissues like Complete Liberty Singles.
In the main, Lewis’ legacy, as demonstrated on this collection, is wholesome, poppy, formulaic teen idol bubblegum. The package is a candy-coated time capsule of innocence. After all, Lewis sings that “happiness” is an ice cream soda, peanut butter, and kisses with his girl. Also reflecting the times, the early singles had B-sides that were studio Playboy instrumentals (“Hard To Find,” “”Tijuana Wedding”), sounding much like tracks recorded for films or TV shows that needed groovy background music. Early on, we get Beach Boys rip-offs like “Little Miss Go-Go” and covers like “Sloop John B.” Lewis even sings falsetto for “Jill,” with much of the support sounding like outtakes from Pet Sounds. Well, that shouldn’t be surprising as many of the players worked as both ersatz Beach Boys and Playboys. But the embarrassing “C.C. Rider” and “Great Balls of Fire” demonstrate that Lewis really could not expand out of the romantic ballad box. A rocker he wasn’t.
It is appropriate that Complete Liberty Singles offers the good old songs in good old mono mixes. Most of us who remember hearing these numbers when they were new listened to them on single-speaker transistor radios or on those flip-top monaural record players. That’s the audience for this collection, collectors of the music we necked to on summer eves at the drive-ins. This is music for those who loved the Bobbys (Rydell, Vee, Vinton, and Darin) and the other young crooners who were bridges between the music of the previous generation and the radio-friendly pop of The Monkees, Archies, and similar performers groomed for Ed Sullivan’s “youngsters in the audience.”